Evanston, IL (SportsNetwork.com) – Coming off a bye, which followed their
first loss of the season, the 19th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers pay a visit to
the Northwestern Wildcats for a Big Ten Conference clash on Saturday evening.
Although the Cornhuskers ultimately fell at Michigan State two weeks ago, they
certainly made a game of it at the end. Trailing 27-3, Nebraska scored three
touchdowns in the final frame, but came up just short. The setback ended a
six-game win streak for Nebraska, which dates back to a 24-19 victory over
Georgia in last season’s Gator Bowl.
“We just couldn’t get the groove, couldn’t execute and it came back to haunt
us,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said, while maintaining
confidence in his team’s chances going forward. “Honestly, it’s not the last
time (MSU) is going to see us, I can promise you that. We plan on going 11-1,
making the Big Ten Championship. We plan on seeing MSU again.”
The first step in setting up a potential rematch with the Spartans will be
taking down Northwestern. Although the Wildcats are just 3-3 overall, they
should not be overlooked. After all, they knocked off a then-undefeated Penn
State on the road, and followed that with a 20-14 upset of Wisconsin earlier
In the series between these relatively new Big Ten foes, Nebraska owns a 5-2
advantage. In the three meetings since the Cornhuskers joined the conference,
Nebraska has won twice, but by an average margin of only two points.
It is no secret that Nebraska will try to run the ball this weekend, and every
weekend this season. The Cornhuskers are second in the Big Ten and sixth
nationally in rushing yards (303.5 ypg). All that running has not kept them
from putting up big numbers on the scoreboard, as they are one of three teams
in the league averaging more than 40 points per game.
The linchpin of the attack is running back Ameer Abdullah, who is on the short
list of Heisman Trophy candidates. Abdullah has racked up 878 yards and 10
touchdowns on 138 carries, while showing an exceptional ability to pick up
yards after contact. He has only lost 20 yards overall and ranks behind only
Indiana’s Tevin Coleman and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon in rushing yards among
Big Ten backs.
Armstrong Jr’s ability to move the ball on the ground also helps in Nebraska’s
offensive scheme, as does the play of backup running back Imani Cross (224
yards, three TDs).
Armstrong Jr. is averaging more than 70 yards per tilt on the ground, but he
is still a fairly effective passer. Although he has completed only 51.9
percent of his passes, he has tallied 1,325 yards and has twice as many
touchdown passes (10) as interceptions (five).
Spreading the ball is not one of Armstrong Jr’s strengths, however, with
Jordan Westerkamp (25 receptions, 474 yards, three TDs) and Kenny Bell (22
receptions, 420 yards, two TDs) easily the most productive receivers on the
Nebraska’s potency on offense is not matched by an overly impressive defensive
presence. The Cornhuskers rank sixth in the Big Ten in points allowed (20.3
ppg) and seventh in total defense (346.7 ypg).
Zaire Anderson (33 tackles, 7.0 TFL) and Randy Gregory (6.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks)
have made a habit of getting into the backfield, and leading tackler Nate
Gerry (37) is a playmaker as well.
Anderson and company are going up against one of the weakest offenses in the
Big Ten. Northwestern is next-to-last in the league in scoring (21.5 ppg) and
11th in total offense (361.7 ypg).
However, running back Justin Jackson has emerged as a real threat in the last
two games. Against Minnesota, he finished with 106 yards on 23 carries, a week
after piling up a season-high 162 yards against Wisconsin. Those efforts
pushed Jackson over the 500-yard mark for the season, although he has not been
able to find the end zone very often, with only two rushing touchdowns.
Jackson showed skill as a receiver against the Golden Gophers as well,
tallying 50 yards and a score on four catches.
Trevor Siemian had a big game against Minnesota, as he set new career-highs in
completions (32)and pass attempts (50), while posting a season-best in passing
yards (269). Despite an interception, he recorded his third straight game with
an efficiency rating above 100, something he did just once in the first three
games of the campaign.
Siemian really hasn’t had a favorite target this season, as he has done a nice
job of spreading the wealth. Dan Vitale (24 receptions, 260 yards, TD) leads
the team in receptions and receiving yards, but he is just barely ahead of
Kyle Prater (23 receptions, 243 yards, TD) in each category. Miles Shuler led
the team with 60 yards on six receptions against Minnesota.
Despite ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in total defense (358.8 ypg),
Northwestern has done well in terms of limiting its opponents’ scoring,
sitting second in the league in points allowed (17.5 ppg).
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is aware of just how difficult a task
his team faces this week against the Cornhuskers.
“It’s a great challenge again for our defense,” Fitzgerald said of taking on
Abdullah and company. “I thought our guys rose up to the challenge pretty well
last week. We could have been a lot better if we just fit some gaps right and